Labour and legislators fight domestic violence's impact at work

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All Jo-Anne Dusel knew for sure was that her co-worker was in trouble. Her partner visited their workplace often, and Dusel could hear the two having upsetting phone conversations.

Dusel suspected abuse. But she wasn’t sure what to do. Should she ask?

Domestic violence — which currently costs Canadian businesses approximately $77.9 million a year — is often “considered a family matter, a private thing, something you don’t talk about, or you don’t ask people about,” Dusel explains today.

She and her colleague worked in a women’s shelter. That made it more awkward. “When you work in the violence against women field, the last thing you want to admit is that you’re a victim yourself,” says Dusel, now the provincial coordinator of the Provincial Association of Transition Houses and Services (PATHS) in Saskatchewan.

Earlier this month, Saskatchewan became the latest province to introduce legislation to guarantee paid and unpaid leave to employees who experience domestic violence.

Bill 603, an Act to Provide Critical Supports for Victims of Domestic Violence, was introduced by Nicole Sarauer, the NDP MLA for Regina Douglas Park, on March 17. If passed, the bill would allow employees to take 10 days leave, in a row or intermittently, and a continuous leave of 17 weeks in a year to get medical or counselling help for domestic violence, seek legal help or move. Up to five days of that may be paid.

Protection for Saskatchewan workers experiencing domestic violence is overdue. Saskatchewan holds the dubious distinction of being the province with the highest rate of reported domestic violence — yet it’s the only one without a provincial plan to address violence against women.

“Survivors needed this support yesterday,” says Sarauer, who adds her bill’s solutions are practical, inexpensive and easy to implement. Although second reading hasn’t been scheduled, she says the government’s response has been positive.

Manitoba passed a similar law last March. British Columbia and Ontario are also considering legislation, which would allow employees up to 10 days paid leave. Both provide these leaves to people who’ve experienced sexual violence as well.

It’s important to address both domestic and sexual violence in one bill instead of dealing with them in “siloes,” adds Peggy Sattler, NDP MPP for London West, who introduced the Ontario bill, which has now passed second reading. The Ministry of Community and Social Services is responsible for domestic violence; the Ministry of the Attorney General for sexual violence. Sattler says this division “doesn’t reflect the reality” of what those who work with people experiencing violence see.

Labour unions have been studying the connection between domestic violence and the workforce for years; their efforts inspired the recent provincial bills.

Last month, the Public Service Alliance of Canada held a workshop about domestic violence at its equity conference in Toronto. The topic was also part of women’s conferences the union held across the country during the past year. And the United Steelworkers union has negotiated domestic violence leave for some workers in British Columbia and Alberta.

In 2014, the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) partnered with researchers at Western University in London, Ont. to study the issue. More than one-third of 8,400 respondents in an online survey said they’d experienced domestic violence. Of those, more than half said it continued at or near their workplaces, often including receiving abusive phone calls or text messages. More than a third of those who reported experiencing domestic violence said it affected their coworkers, usually by causing them stress.

People who are being abused often arrive late, or are absent. They may be distracted or unproductive. They may need to take time off for medical appointments, or to find a new place to live. Sometimes, partners try to keep them from work altogether, or visit them at work, endangering everyone’s safety.

Shelters can give people fleeing domestic violence a certain amount of security — their partners may not be able to reach them there — but abusers likely know where and when they work.

 “If a worker is being affected by domestic violence, it most definitely is going to follow them to work,” agrees Lori Johb, chair of the women’s committee for the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour (SFL). The federation worked with the CLC on its pan-Canadian study and provided input into the Saskatchewan bill. “There has to be things put in place in the workplace to protect the worker.”

The proposed bill says employers must accommodate a worker who’s experiencing domestic violence. That could be as simple as changing their work phone number, assigning them a new parking space, or, if needed, adjusting their work schedule or letting them work in a new location. Domestic violence needs to be considered an occupational health and safety issue, Johb adds.

The impact of domestic violence on Saskatchewan workplaces is disturbing.

Besides providing input into Bill 603, Jo-Anne Dusel’s transition house organization PATHS has also surveyed people on the issue. Although results haven’t been made public yet, 46 per cent of 430 respondents reported experiencing domestic violence. Another six per cent said they weren’t sure, but their explanatory comments indicated they likely had. They described the violence as emotional or psychological, not physical.

The survey also showed the alarming impact the violence has on the workplace. According to preliminary results provided to rabble, 83 per cent of those who reported experiencing violence said they were unable to concentrate at work; 74 per cent they couldn’t perform at their best. Almost half – 46 per cent – left work upset; 60 per cent called in sick because they were too upset to go into work.

But people need to continue to receive income to leave violence. Noting that work is a “safe place” for many people, Johb says unpaid leave, at the least, provides much-needed job security. “That’s the one thing they have.”

The PATHS survey indicates the workplace can also provide emotional support. Almost half of survey respondents who experienced domestic violence said they’d confided in a co-worker about their situation. Twenty per cent told a manager. The majority who ask for help receive it; 65 per cent said they’d received emotional support.

“When you see someone else that’s upset or struggling, you want to do all that you can to help them,” says Johb, who in the past has suspected co-workers were being abused. She’d been trained to recognize the signs, and was able to tell her co-workers where they could go for support.

But not everyone can do that.

Although co-workers can provide emotional support to victims, that’s often the extent of it. Only 25 per cent of people who confided in a co-worker were referred to a counsellor or an Employee Assistance Plan.

Nearly half of respondents to the PATHS survey said they suspected a co-worker had experienced domestic violence. But only a third said they’d been trained to respond to the issue. Just 19 per cent said their workplaces had policies about domestic violence; many weren’t sure if their workplaces had such policies.

Hopefully, that changes.

The Saskatchewan Federation of Labour, for example, is providing training to help employees better direct co-workers in need to the right services. “We want to make sure we’re supporting that worker and not condemning them,” explains Johb. “Because when you’re in a domestic violence situation, it’s not of your own doing, and there’s no way you can control it.”

PATHS, in fact, is piloting a project with the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees’ Union to identify how current contracts and policies could better support workers leaving domestic violence. Ultimately, PATHS wants all employees to receive one hour of training about identifying and responding to domestic abuse. People with strategic roles, like high-level managers or receptionists, will receive a day of training.

That training could help people overcome the hesitancy to help Dusel herself experienced years ago when she suspected her co-worker was in an abusive relationship. The relationship ended before the issue grew. But in the time since, Dusel says she’s done much “soul-searching” about her experience.

She wishes she’d “at least opened the door to support for that individual.”

If the trend of employers addressing domestic violence continues, accessing those supports will hopefully only become easier – for everyone affected.

Meagan Gillmore is rabble’s labour reporter.


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